Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
For a long time I disrespected turkeys. Over the years we’ve probably owned 20 or 30 of the big birds. None of them has ever made it to our dinner table or provided any other useful function except, maybe, entertainment. They do OK for a while. They stalk around the yard gobbling grubs and grasshoppers. They’ve even raised clutches of babies in our coop. Somehow each of them has contrived to be killed by one predator or another–dogs, coyotes, hawks, opossums, skunks, owls or bobcats before they had been here 6 months. In the morning I might let six turkeys out of the coop. In the evening only five come in. Sometimes I find a pile of feathers. Chickens thrived alongside them, but the turkeys just couldn’t seem to stay alive.
I figured they just didn’t have the intelligence or the survival instincts to make it in the open. I lost respect for domesticated turkeys.
Then I met the Ghost Turkey.
She was one of a half-dozen turkeys we got from a breeder promoting “midget whites,” an heirloom variety bred for better taste and smaller meals. The midget whites didn’t last any longer than our other turkey experiments. Soon they all had disappeared.
One of the more memorable midget whites was a shy little hen with an unusual red tinge in her tail feathers. One evening she wasn’t in the chicken coop when the sun went down. That left only a white midget tom and a bigger hen from a breed called a royal palm. Pretty soon the tom was gone also.
Six weeks later I was working in the garden on a Saturday afternoon when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a white bird larger than a chicken sneaking through the shrubs around the henhouse. It was a white midget turkey hen with red in her tail. I watched her slowly make her way through the bushes and around the corner into the henhouse. Ten minutes later she came out again, took a careful look around, and then walked across the yard. She threaded her way through three fences and into the woods a quarter-mile north of my house on a neighbor’s property.
Since then I’ve seen her a dozen times, always in the middle of the afternoon. She doesn’t vary her routine. She follows her standard route past the corners of the gates and through a tear in a wire fence, visits the coop for a quick meal and then returns to the woods.
We’re proud of our hardy chickens. We congratulate ourselves on breeding a flock that ranges freely and thrives in spite of predators and the weather. We always thought our turkeys just couldn’t make the grade.
But, miraculously, the Ghost Turkey survives.
It isn’t the first time one of our animals has done something astonishing. When the cat settled comfortably into the chicken house we were surprised. When we found him sheltering baby chickens under his furry belly on a cold morning, we were amazed. Asnath the goat was impossible to catch but confidently moved herself out of the billy-goat pasture and into the pasture with the other does and babies the evening before she gave birth. Duke, our first ram, was inexplicably the most popular animal on the farm–physically affectionate with people, mules, donkeys and even the other rams. We’ve never seen another that we could so much as touch, much less scratch his belly the way Duke liked. And he came from the same farm that provided almost all our breeding stock, raised in the same rambunctious flock.
We are surprised, nearly every day, by some personality quirk or ingenious solution dreamed up by a chicken or a baby goat. Our farm is not only our hobby and our sustenance, it’s also a big part of our social life. Our animals are inventive and interesting. They are, generally, good company.
Seeing nature from this perspective, I don’t worry about nature adapting to new conditions. If we are having a permanent impact on the planet, nature will adjust its methods to the changes. Nature is good at that. If a white midget turkey hen can survive alone in the woods for months, nature’s diverse citizenry will find new ways of thriving on a warmer planet, a wetter planet, a drier planet or a colder planet. They’ve done it before.
I’m not concerned about “saving the earth.” The earth is pretty tough.
But I want to make sure people are here to see the next wonderful thing. I want people to be here to gape at the great waterfalls, the big rocks rising out of the desert and the glaciers flowing down off the mountains into the ocean. I want my children’s children to see this planet and to marvel. I want poets and composers to record their inspirations in books and symphonies. I want our species’ love affair with its beautiful, abundant planet to go on for a long, long time.